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A witch never has enough time, and in the summer least of all. By day, Alcmene had herbs to pick and dry, and spells to sew snugly closed. By night, she had leeches to set against the sky’s plush, velvet flank, to bleed off some of that uniquely dense darkness for later necessity. And, of course, harvest-festival babies always arrived on their own schedule, day or night or anywhere in between, requiring a witch to coax them into fretful, shrieking life.

And despite all these needful tasks, there is also, one sunny afternoon, the sound of her daughter’s voice in the garden.

Alcmene sets aside her sewing. Sachets of lavender and comfrey and cinquefoil, each bound in thread of the proper color. Dried feverfew tumbles free from the last sachet, and its enchantment does too. Alcmene stares at the spilled herbs and the spilled magic, twisting her hands in her lap. One fingernail finds the ragged edge of a cuticle and rips it clean. She lets a corner of her apron wick the blood gently away. She has learned by now that it is important not to move too quickly. Not when it comes to the girl.

The wren, a friendly neighbor to the witch, as all birds are in their way, trills out its excitement from its perch on the back of Alcmene’s rocking chair. The rockers whisper to stillness as she rises amid a complaint of creaking joints. Though her feet make no sound against the packed-dirt floor, her ankles crack with every step. Enough noise to startle the child? No. When Alcmene brushes the curtain away from the window, movement flickers between the panes of the shutters: a flash of white skirt, a grass-stained elbow, a bouncing braid. From here, her piping voice is clearer. She sings a nonsense patter, stitched together from scraps of lullaby and odd rhymes. Alcmene recognizes in it the echoes of the songs she has sung to herself: to call the bees and beetles, or to warn off the rainclouds from a flooded plain.

She scrapes her tongue against the back of her throat, trying to clear away the debris of unshed tears. The first thing the girl hears shouldn’t be the rattle of phlegm in an old woman’s throat. “Come inside, darling,” she calls, gentle as summer rain, insistent as a new infant’s cry. “Such a warm day. Wouldn’t you like some tea? Or a cup of milk with honey?”

Outside, the fluttering movement stills. Alcmene puts her eye to the crack, searching. “No, mother,” says the little-girl voice. “The milk always sours too soon.”

“A game, then. Cat’s cradle. Conkers. Please, my love. It’s time.” Alcmene puts her hand on the shutter, and slowly, gently, swings it open.

There she is, for a moment, standing barefoot in the garden. She has her mother’s square chin and eyes as black as an empty cellar in the dead of winter. “No, mother,” she says sweetly, and tugs the ribbon loose from the end of her braid. She unravels along with the plaits. “Hide and seek.” And then the only hint that she ever was there is a bit of ribbon drifting on the breeze. The wren darts out the window, calling its query as it swoops back and forth through the empty air where she’d stood: where did you go? Oh, where-where did you go?

Alcmene collapses to the bench beside the window. The sachets will wait, as will the summer and all its many labors. It has been years since her last sighting of the girl; she cannot afford to wait another such span before seeing her again. Her life is half spent or more, hundreds of years of wisdom braided together behind her: yet she still lacks a daughter to whom she can bequeath her power.

She cannot die without passing it on, no. But she can be dying.

 


 

It is not for want of trying that Alcmene has no babe in arms. She is always straining for a glimpse around corners, for a snatch of song at the farthest reaches of her hearing. Already she has seen the girl dozens of times before: a child, sweet-faced in sleep. A stubborn, pouting toddler. Even a young woman, childhood braids tucked into a ladylike snood.

And she has come close. One day, the villagers brought her a slain boar. Their thanks, for work already done on their behalf, and for that yet to come—but also their question. When she drove her knife into its belly to draw forth their desired answers, an infant’s cry rose out of the torn hide. Alcmene dropped the knife then, to thrust her own hands into the beast’s flesh in its stead.

Inside, cushioned on a foamy lung and swaddled with a drape of liver, there was a living, breathing baby. A baby that Alcmene held in her arms, that she cleaned in her washtub and fed with her own body; a baby whose knife-cut flesh Alcmene cleaned and packed with herbs and whispered the old words over. A baby that struggled and squalled against her, refusing to be held. That night, Alcmene lay down in her own low bed, the cradle close enough to rest a hand on even as she slept. She dreamed that night, the sorts of dreams often reported by new mothers whose own bodies withered to feed their young. Fevered visions of midwinter feasts and birthday celebrations, frothy confections of fruit and sugar, iron-tanged organ meats, cured lamb and new bread with thick crust that tore unwillingly in the mouth. When she woke, the cradle was empty, and her belly was bloated and heavy, the taste of lamb’s-liver still on her tongue.

She longs to rage, but against whom? Her daughter is untaught, untamed. The girl bears no fault for this game of hers, no more than the bees are to blame for the stubborn green knot of an unfertilized squash. She needs someone to teach her, and that someone must be Alcmene. Shall she herself take the blame, then? No, she and her body have fought too many battles side by side for her ever to call it a traitor.

She has never held her daughter again, not since that night. The girl is ripe with magic of her own, wild and uncontrollable in the full flush of youth. Though Alcmene’s power is stout and strong, built upon roots both deep and wide, the fruit has begun to wither on the vine.

And yet there are babies to be born, and old folks who must be tended to and cherished through their own unmaking. There are futures to be told in a fallen hawk’s feather, there are medicines that honey must be cajoled into holding. There are spiders whose secrets only a witch can hear. Her power is dearly needed in this world, but Alcmene does not know how much longer she can meaningfully hold it. The peak of her time has come, and another must learn while there is still one left to teach her.

Was she such a difficult child in her turn? She cannot remember her mother ever saying so. She cannot remember her mother speaking of such things, or much of what she said at all: Alcmene is very old now, and the more she takes out a memory to examine it, the more tattered it becomes. What was the shape of her mother’s voice? How did the lines of her face map the life she’d lived before Alcmene?

A fluttering breeze resists Alcmene’s first efforts to close the shutters. The west wind is worried about her, she knows; a most solicitous draft, so much more serious than its frivolous southern sibling, so much more devoted than the cool winds from the north. “Oh, I’m all right,” she promises. “Everything will be fine, in the end.”

Another swirl of dust motes, and the west wind concedes. Once the shutters are closed against the empty garden, Alcmene eases into the dark kitchen. The end of a loaf of bread, the last of the rose-hip jam. She has little hunger just now, but she tries to find the joy in eating. As an afterthought, she sets the kettle to boil in the hearth, and makes herself a cup of tea to dip the stale bread into. When she is finished, the soggy crumbs in the bottom take on the curve of a young girl’s cheek, clotted tea leaves curling into a tumble of uncombed hair.

“You must accept this power eventually,” Alcmene warns her. But not today. Not today.

Still: even the most prodigal daughter must be brought into the fold eventually. That is her destiny, and Alcmene’s duty: the two are bound by a power that can be shared but never broken.

 


 

The next morning, a knock on her door wakes Alcmene from restless, dream-churned sleep. A young mother huddles outside in the spitting rain, her young son wrapped in her shawl. Alcmene sits the boy on her kitchen table, where his little legs dangle listlessly. He has the skin-blight, his mother explains, and sure enough, telltale gray lines spider their way up and down his arm from a scabbed-over cut near the elbow.

Easily enough managed. Alcmene pours a thimbleful of moonlight into her mortar and muddles it with a daub of clay and a sprig of blisterwort. The boy winces when she smears the paste over the blight-marks, but sits still and examines the drying clay with shy curiosity as Alcmene packs the remainder of the medicine into a jar for his mother to carry home. Curiosity is a virtue; Alcmene considers, briefly, whether it would be worth keeping the boy for herself. A daughter is traditional, but a son is better than nothing.

If Alcmene asked, the woman would probably even surrender him without a fight. The villagers would not love Alcmene if she demanded such a price, but they would pay it. Better, surely, to see a living child in someone else’s arms than a great many dead ones buried in the garden at home for want of a witch’s care. There will always be skin-blight and blisterpox and the milksour rot. There may not always be a witch to turn these things aside. It would not be a kind decision, but the right decisions cannot always be kind.

“Thank you for your help,” the mother says, standing at Alcmene’s door. The gray in her face is from concern and want of sleep, not from skin-blight. “I will repay you however I can.”

Alcmene looks at the boy, whose arms are wrapped around his mother’s waist. “Wood for the fireplace,” she says, and her voice is gray too, gray as worry and winter and wisdom. “Cold days are on their way.”

After the mother and her son go, Alcmene hears a familiar voice in the yard: her daughter, who is calling all the bees by their secret names. Alcmene closes up the shutters and draws the curtains against the weakling morning light.

The cold is coming, and she has waited too long already.

 


 

Alcmene surrenders three precious days to meditation. Sitting cross-legged on the rug beside the hearth, she marshals the strength left to her and pours it into the well-carved channel through which all her love and longing flow. Let her daughter come now, or never. If Alcmene fails, her body will ebb and fade as her restless strength binds her to a life she will no longer have the substance to lead. She will be a ghost, a whispered name, a scrap of poetry that no longer rhymes.

She ignores the girlish giggles from the inside of jam jars, the silly songs and the skipping-rope rhythm that rattles the lid of the chest of blankets and makes the crockery hum on its shelf. These are a child’s tactics, and Alcmene is a woman grown.

Before she stirs her floor-bruised bones, she coughs, to clear her throat, and begins to hum. (She would have sung the tune, once, but she no longer trusts her voice to bear up under the notes.) It has been a long time, but old friends still come when they are called. From the corners of Alcmene’s cupboard and the fine tunnels below her garden, armies of black ants come marching. They crawl over the backs of her fingers, around the curve of her ear, greeting her. A chosen few march bravely into the corner of her mouth. They release their sour, bright tang as she accepts the gift of their strength and grinds them between her teeth.

The front door creaks, and heavy paws scratch deep into the dirt floor. It is a bear, the forest’s grand old dam, her muzzle gray and one eye moon-white with cataracts. Alcmene has known her since she was a cub. Her maw opens over Alcmene’s outstretched hand, into which she drops a dripping honeycomb. Alcmene sinks her teeth deep into it, breaking open the cells and adding sticky, floral notes to the ants’ astringency. Hope is sweet, and the reverse is sometimes true as well.

Last to arrive is the sparrow. She waits, perched on the windowsill, until Alcmene opens her eyes. The witch acknowledges the bird with a deep nod, and the bird, in turn, dips her wings. Witches and sparrows have a long, long kinship: those who care for the living and those who bear untethered souls between lives cannot help but find a mutual respect.

With salutations properly given, the sparrow flutters her wings and alights in Alcmene’s skirts, where they drape tented between her crossed legs. The bird shudders, her cloaca pulsing once, twice, against the inside of Alcmene’s knee; then she sings out her pain, a shrill triplet of notes. A speckled brown-and-white egg drops into Alcmene’s lap, and the sparrow collapses, trembling.

“Thank you,” Alcmene says, with great feeling. Yes, there are many sparrows and only one witch, and needs must. But this egg is the only one that is, precisely, itself, and she knows what cost the bird has paid on her behalf. “I’m sorry,” she whispers to the egg, and she opens her mouth and slides it inside and swallows it.

Inside her, the egg shrinks to a point of starlight, it expands as wide as the universe. It slides down her gullet, stretching her out as it goes. Her belly tightens, and then it swells. The front of her calico dress tears as her stomach grows like an overripe melon and she strips the remains away—everything is happening faster than she thought, as her body struggles to overpower and contain a younger, wilder force. Tiny fists beat inside her; tiny feet drive hard up into her lungs. Seeking an escape route, seeking one last hiding place. “Not this time,” Alcmene gasps, and in her pelvis, pain blossoms monstrously.

She throws herself forward onto hands and knees and forces herself to find the rhythm of her breath: somewhere between the roll of thunder a hundred miles away and the flicker of a hummingbird’s heart. The pain ebbs and surges, and she struggles to stay afloat upon it—her daughter does not mean to hurt her; this kind of hurt is only the long, sad way of the world. And the pain grows, and it grows, until her body can contain it no longer, and the pain everts itself out of her, and time becomes thicker, denser, folding in close around her, condensed by the weight of all their shared power. Something warm and firm and full of life slithers to the ground between her knees and she is falling, the baby is, and always has been, and Alcmene has always been waiting to catch her.

She reaches through that gelatinous, treacherous time to gather the infant against her, holding her close. The pain is still there: only now it is externalized, it is gathered up outside of her into this one terrible, beautiful, wax-smeared and wailing locus, and the closer she is, the tighter Alcmene holds her, the less the pain will be. Or, at least, the less Alcmene imagines it will, and when it comes to pain, that matters just as much. Alcmene’s arms encircle the baby, and her daughter reaches back for her, grabbing for her face with fat, dimpled fingers. Time closes in again, crystallizes, as Alcmene stares into two black, shining eyes: eyes full of twinned galaxies, yet to be explored.

For an eternity, Alcmene blinks. And—time stops holding its breath.

Her arms are around her daughter, and her daughter’s arms are around her, but the world has flipped around on its axis and now it is Alcmene who stares up at a strange and familiar face. She knows its shape, she knows the eyes dark as new moons, but she does not recognize the lines beside the mouth, the suggestion of silver in the forelock. It is the person she expected, delivered in a manner that she did not. “See,” she says, and her voice is the raven’s quark, the creak of a closing door. “You could not run from me forever.”

“I know,” says the girl. The woman. Laomone, that is her name. She smiles, but she is cross with Alcmene; her brow furrows, but her hand is soft on Alcmene’s cheek. “I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.”

“I had so much that I wanted to teach you.”

“I learned more than you think.” The sparrow alights on Laomone’s shoulder, tilting its head with curiosity as it peers down at Alcmene first with one eye, then the other. Laomone whistles, high and piercing, and the bird darts off. It returns a moment later with a scrap of calico in its claws, which Laomone takes to dab at Alcmene’s damp cheeks. “I was always listening.”

And perhaps she was, observing from her own muddy reflection in a jar of vinegar, overhearing what she could from behind closed doors and around corners. Eavesdropping from the shadows of the eaves. She wears her hand-me-down power differently than Alcmene always carried it, folding it along new seams, letting it out where it would have fit her too snugly. She leans closer to her mother now; looking, Alcmene thinks, for ways to give back some fraction of what she has inherited. “Will you not stay a little longer? Please, mother. Long enough for a cup of tea. Or even just some milk, with honey.”

It will not work, of course, and they both know this. Time is a river that only ever flows forward, and power is no different. The edges of Alcmene’s thoughts are crumbling in on themselves, the boundaries of her being blackening to ash that falls away with the breeze of Laomone’s sigh. “I would like that very much,” Alcmene says, but of course she cannot stay, and there is no power left to her against which she could bargain.

No power left to spin the day’s fading sunlight into silken thread; no power to bid the swallows and sparrows and the honeybees and the burrowing creatures of the ground goodbye in the music of their native tongues. No power to bind a healing spell to the sachet of feverfew. And no power to linger beside this girl-woman-witch, her greatest project and one which she always knew she would never see through to its end. A witch never has enough time, but when the hands of the clock go still and silent, it is good, at least, to trust in the fingers that will wind the mechanism anew.


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Clayton Kroh

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Aimee Ogden is an American werewolf in the Netherlands. Her debut novella, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, was a Nebula Award Finalist, and her newest novella, Emergent Properties, arrives July 2023. Her short fiction has previously appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find more of her work at her website.
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